PHOENIX - Arizona residents have a new online site that will connect them to social services and provide an information network to deal with raging wildland fires and other disasters.
It's the first phase of a system that by next year also is to include a statewide system of call centers.
With the second phase still under development, Arizonans will be able to dial the 211 phone number to get information about natural disasters or other emergencies and get help from health and social services.
When the call centers go live, state officials hope they will reduce the strain on the state's 911 system by as much as 40 percent.
But for now, if people call 211, they'll be directed to the Web site (www.az211.gov).
The first phase will be paid for with a mixture of federal grants, cash from the private sector, municipal dollars and donations from nonprofit organizations. There is no need for money from the state so far though state employees are working on the project.
The Web site's effectiveness could be tested immediately as many Arizona residents grapple with wildfires raging near their towns and communities.
As demonstrated Wednesday for Gov. Janet Napolitano, the Web site includes a bulletin on size and status of the Cave Creek Complex fire burning northeast of Phoenix as well as a map showing its location and spread.
When a major blaze ignites, the 211 site will post a bulletin to provide details. Bulletins also will tell residents if they must be evacuated, where they can find shelters and what roads are being closed.
The state has placed air-quality monitoring equipment in the area of the fire. "That's exactly the kind of stuff that would go on the az211 site," Napolitano said.
"In short, it is a way to get information to people as quickly and as easily as possible," said Napolitano, who included development of the az211 system in her homeland security system plan. "It's more than just a database."
The plan is that by next summer, the Web site will be joined by call centers that are localized to meet the needs of the communities they serve.
Frank Navarrete, the state's emergency management director, said state officials will monitor the system to see what type of information is requested. Repeated requests regarding health care for certain symptoms could indicate a possible incidence of bioterrorism, he said.
Arizona's 211 system is part of a national movement to get "real time" information to residents so they don't have to navigate a maze of Web sites and phone numbers.
About 40 states are working on 211 projects, but only four states have statewide systems in place.
Napolitano envisions a more comprehensive system for Arizona by "taking the homeland-security piece and blending it with health and human services," said Chris Cummiskey, who heads Arizona's Government Information Technology Agency. "It's a unique vision that hasn't been realized around the country. A lot of states are watching to see how this unfolds here."